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MAKING THEIR OWN TRAILS
Hut trip adventures are empowering
for women
Written by MARY ROSS
Photography by KIT WILLIAMS

Colorado women have always had grit. Combine this with a well-known tradition of independence and a sense of adventure, and they are ever ready to tackle the challenges the day may bring.

Planning a hut trip to the top of a spectacular mountain can be one of those life-defining adventures. Women who take hut trips consider it a “call of duty” to gear up, strap on their skis and trek the trail with good friends, family, or, best of all, their girlfriends. With resolute determination, they leave their cell phones and list of duties behind for a few rejuvenating days. For women with busy lives, the quiet and beauty of Colorado’s high country is exhilarating, as is the exhaustion and sense of accomplishment they feel when they reach their destination. Experiencing a little fear along the way only heightens the challenge

The lure of backcountry cabins takes one back to a time of true self-sufficiency. The travelers’ chores for survival include chopping wood for the stove, boiling snow for drinking water and shoveling a trail to the outhouse. Every hut has at least one bed with mattress and pillow plus cooking utensils, but hikers must supply everything else needed to stay warm and comfortable in the cold wilderness for a few days.

Meet three energetic women who love crosscountry skiing and snowshoeing to these outposts
while reveling in the breathtaking Colorado scenery.

LEIGH GARVIN
As the former director of the Summit Hut Association, Leigh Garvin loves any sport on skis. Her favorites include cross-country skiing with her dog, backcountry skiing behind the huts and downhill skiing at Breckenridge. Not one to miss an opportunity to enjoy the mountains, Garvin takes to hiking the trails in the summer. “It’s very empowering for a lot of women to realize they can do it on their own,” Garvin says of the hut trip experience. “Packing everything on your back is not an easy thing to do,“ she says. “You need the sleeping bag, food and emergency gear before trudging off into the woods for three to seven miles and relying on each other for route finding. It’s a very self-reliant kind of a journey.”

Garvin is a longtime resident of Breckenridge and the current director of Continental Divide Land Trust, a nonprofit that helps protect open space. She has completed hundreds of trips to Summit County’s three huts -— Francie’s, Janet’s Cabin and Section House — as well as the 10th Mountain Huts. These cabins can be a rustic destination such as Section House atop Boreas Pass, built in the 1800’s as a wagon trail stop, or as new as Independence Hut, built last year.

As the director of Summit Huts for seven years, Garvin has seen it all when it comes to groups being well prepared for their hut journeys as well as those trip incidents that wake her up at 3 a.m. with travelers in desperate straits. Garvin recalls one incident 10 years ago that could have resulted in serious injury: “We had a group of college students and their professor at Janet’s Cabin. One kid hadn’t listened to the instructions on what to bring.

He started hiking up to the hut in his tennis shoes and snowshoes! His feet got very cold. Three-quarters of the way up, he couldn’t feel his feet. Some of the kids decided to burn their snowshoes. The rescue group found this one kid, put him in warm clothes and boots and made him walk out.” Garvin says rescues are rare. “Most of the time people go for a night or two to a hut that has great backcountry skiing, eat good meals and drink the wine they’ve packed in. They ski the next day behind their hut and come home having had a fantastic wilderness experience,” she says. “The more ambitious skiers go from hut to hut for several days, but this requires more packing, planning and fitness. A good leader knows how to fix a ski if the binding breaks, has some first aid knowledge and knows how to find the trail in the backcountry. “Being in shape for a trip is also a good idea. If you can’t physically do it, find something else to do with your friends,” Garvin suggests.

WENDELL FLEMING
As an athlete and leader of the Women’s Wilderness Institute, a group that takes fourth- through 11th-grade girls on mountain adventures throughout Colorado, Wendell Fleming extols the benefits for women who take hut trips together.

After having done many family trips, she did her first trip with her girlfriends to Chuck’s Place. This cabin on Shrine Mountain has a yurt next to the hut. Their guide arranged for a half-hour massage for each of the women after they arrived. “We went into this very warm yurt and lay down on a comfy bed, and a Zen-like, lovely woman gave us each a massage,“ she says. “We then drifted to our hut and made a great chicken curry dinner and had lots of wine. That was a very good start. We all had such a blast that we decided to do it every year.” Other trips have been more challenging and required a greater level of expertise and fitness. Her ski trip up to Section House the following year had a much longer, steeper climb to the top of windy Guanella Pass. “It was a five-mile ski on a brutally cold day,” she recalls. “If you stopped to have a bite to eat, your fingers were frozen. We were pretty psyched to get to that hut.”

Inside the drafty old hut, the skiers quickly lit a fire in the ancient stove. They would later cut new wood and replace what they had used before they left in two days. The honor system is important among hut travelers. Despite the bitter cold, the women loved their great food and raucous stories in the dim light of this century-old, rustic cabin as the wine flowed.

Most huts have a restriction on any motorized vehicles, but at Summit the group was able to hire a snowmobile operator to bring up two friends for this particular trip. One woman was recovering from breast cancer, and another had recently had knee surgery. Both women were motivated to enjoy a special overnight hut adventure.

“This is good for the soul,” Fleming says of the hut trip experience. “You feel like you have been gone for a week. The exercise is great, and so are the connections. I come back feeling like I am 10 years younger. Waiting a year is too long,” she says.

KELLY MURRAY
A skier all her life, Kelly Murray has battled rheumatoid arthritis, a childhood autoimmune disease, most of her life too. Her joints didn’t form properly as she grew, and her rheumatoid arthritis became severe osteoarthritis in adulthood. Despite the pain, she did hut trips twice a year. Earlier this year, she had hip replacement surgery. The surgery did not prevent her from taking a snowshoe trip in December to the new Continental Divide Hut for a day. She later brought back eight women in January for two nights. Only half a mile from the trailhead, this hut is the newest in the 10th Mountain system. It has running water from a cistern in the kitchen, eight beds and an attached outhouse. The kitchen has all the necessary dishes, pots and pans, as do all the cabins, plus the added luxury of electric lights. The front porch looks out at the magnificent Continental Divide, the Rocky Mountain line of summits dividing rivers between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Despite the variety of skiers’ abilities Murray and her friend Virginia Barron have seen, they love the challenges and transformative powers of a hut trip. “It’s a life-changing challenge at times when you’re in a blizzard and can’t find the blue triangle trail marker,” Murray says. “One time we got to our hut and couldn’t go out for two days. The weather was so bad, we couldn’t see anything.”

Murray has been lost more than once and also had a near miss with an avalanche. “We were climbing up by Janet’s Cabin, and the whole slope below went. It was underneath us, and you could hear it,” she says. Thanks to several experienced skiers, the women moved quickly uphill to the hut.

While some huts hold 20 people, others such as Ken’s Cabin, nicknamed the honeymoon hut, accommodate just two. It has been renovated with antiques and a cooktop for the lucky couple renting it. Murray recommends reserving the whole hut because strangers who share your cabin can be hit or miss. Despite some of her misadventures, Murray wouldn’t miss a hut trip. “You grow friendships and meet new people. At this stage of our lives, we get in our comfort zone, and hut trips are out of that, physically and emotionally. And you can’t help but think, this is our state and it’s so beautiful,” she smiles.

To learn more about hut trips or to reserve a cabin, go to Huts.org.